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The Journal of Peasant Studies
ISSN: 0306-6150 (Print) 1743-9361 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/fjps20
Flying bananas: small producer tactics and the
(un)making of Philippine banana export chains
Robin Thiers
To cite this article: Robin Thiers (2017): Flying bananas: small producer tactics and the
(un)making of Philippine banana export chains, The Journal of Peasant Studies, DOI:
10.1080/03066150.2017.1376659
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2017.1376659
Published online: 25 Oct 2017.
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Download by: [Georgetown University]
Date: 26 October 2017, At: 03:34
The Journal of Peasant Studies, 2017
https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2017.1376659
Flying bananas: small producer tactics and the (un)making of
Philippine banana export chains
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Robin Thiers
Global production network (GPN) analysts argue that workers actively contribute to the
shaping of GPNs through different forms of agency. In this contribution I extend this
argument to the tactical agency of small producers. By focusing on the phenomenon
of side-selling among Filipino banana contract farmers, I show that these tactics have
contributed to the emergence of alternative trade networks that undermined traditional
lead firm behaviour and inspired new struggles over chain governance. However, as a
diverse and ambiguous group of growers engages in this tactical agency,
predominantly as small capital, they also contribute to the continuation of broader
dynamics of capital accumulation and labour exploitation.
Keywords: global production networks; tactics; everyday resistance; small producers;
production regime; contract farming
Global commodity chain (GCC)1 literature predominantly focuses on the actions of firms in
the global economy and the relations between them. Attention is therefore given to big multinational companies (MNCs) and the way capitalist competition on the one hand, and
public and private standards and regulation on the other, together strengthen MNC
power vis-à-vis those at the production end of the chain. The World Bank stresses how
powerful businesses can ‘vote with their feet’ by moving production to cheaper localities
worldwide (World Bank 2008, 136). Commodity chain analysts focus on the governance
mechanisms employed by ‘lead firms’ to optimise profits by outsourcing, subcontracting
or dislocating production (Barrientos et al. 2010; Ponte and Gibbon 2005). However,
critics claim that mainstream understanding of power-in-the-chain as a privilege of big
transnational firms tends to portray the localities where production takes place as ‘little
more than the bearers of large firms’ actions’ (Rainnie et al. 2013, 184; see also Smith
et al. 2002). Providing a contrasting perspective, a number of labour geographers and development scholars have started focusing on the agency of workers as they become integrated
in global production networks (GPNs) (Coe and Hess 2013; see also other contributions in
this collection).
With this paper I aim to contribute to this literature by focusing on two aspects of
agency within these spaces of production which have received less attention. First,
1
Besides GCC, the literature also speaks of global value chains (GVC) and global production networks (GPN) (Bair 2005). I will use the terms here interchangeably as the distinction between
them is not central to my argument.
© 2017 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
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Robin Thiers
instead of workers, my focus is on small-scale producers, in this case banana contract
farmers. Second, instead of focusing on visible, collective forms of agency, I look at a
case of less-visible ‘tactical’ (de Certeau 1984) agency. More specifically, I discuss the
practice of Filipino banana farmers who sell a portion of their contracted produce to
other buyers. In the first section of the paper I define the ‘small producers’ tactical
agency’, and theoretical relevance to the field of (agricultural) GPN analysis. In the
second section I consider the history and practice of side-selling or ‘palupad’ [Visayan]
among banana contract farmers in La Frontera,2 a banana town in the province of Davao
del Norte in the Southern Philippines. I argue that this phenomenon can be understood
as a form of tactical agency, embedded within evolving relations of class, loyalty,
kinship and the Asian banana commodity chain. In section 3, I argue that such tactical
agency has had consequential effects for power relations and struggles in the production
setting in La Frontera and in the governance of the Philippine export banana sector as a
whole. However, I conclude that since the tactics of small producers are predominantly
driven from a position of relatively small capital, they do not challenge the core dynamics
of exploitation and reciprocity within La Frontera’s production regime. While small producers helped subvert a certain power system, they have also contributed to the continuation
of embedded capitalist relations in the Asian banana commodity chain.
Empirical data for this contribution was collected from 2015 to 2017 during four successive periods of field work in the Davao region, adding up to a total of eight months.
During this time I resided alternatively in Davao City, the main political and economic
hub of the banana trade, and in more rural banana-producing zones, particularly La Frontera
and its neighbouring municipality. Data was collected from government sources and other
written documents; observation of production, packing and trading in banana producing
cooperatives; and over 200 qualitative interviews and informal conversations with
workers, landowners, traders, government staff and company officials. Interviews typically
took the form of oral life/company history with a thematic focus on experiences in the
banana sector.
1.
Small producers’ tactics: why bother?
The rationale for my argument draws on three bodies of literature. First, the literature on
workers’ agency in GPNs has contributed to our understanding of how people operating
in localised spaces of production actively contribute to the making, shaping and transforming of economic geographies. Second, I focus on the arguments made about minor (individual, hidden, small-scale, etc.) forms of agency. Third, bringing in insights from Marxist
agrarian political economy, I consider the agents under discussion – that is, small-scale contract farmers. Taking account of heterogeneity and ambiguity in small farmers’ class position, I wonder what consequences this may have for the nature of their agency in relation to
broader dynamics of capitalist accumulation and exploitation.
Over the last decade, a plethora of research has been conducted on the ways in which
people operating in localised spaces of production actively contribute to the making,
shaping and transforming of economic geographies. Particularly labour geographers and
Marxist development scholars have broadened their focus from the structural impediments
for good working conditions within the global economy (see e.g. Barrientos and Kritzinger
2
For privacy concerns, I use pseudonyms for persons and places referred to at the municipal level and
below.
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The Journal of Peasant Studies
3
2004; Mezzadri 2010) towards the agency of workers themselves as they integrate in GPNs.
The core theoretical argument underpinning these efforts is a Marxist understanding of
capitalism as driven by a double logic of, on the one hand, capitalist competition
between firms and, on the other, the on-going dialectic of labour exploitation by capital
(Coe and Hess 2013; Henderson et al. 2002; Rainnie et al. 2011; Selwyn 2011). This perspective, which puts capital–labour relations at the centre of capitalist dynamics, forces us
to look at workers as active participants in the making, shaping and transforming of global
commodity chains or production networks. This has pushed many to look at the most
visible forms of worker agency, such as collective mobilisation through labour unions.
Empirical research along these lines has shown that, contrary to common understanding,
the integration of workers into GPNs can enhance their potential for collective action.
Several authors have pointed to the power organised labour can have at certain ‘choke
points’ in the chain. By blocking or delaying production or trade at strategic points (e.g.
production of vital inputs, harvest or transport of a perishable product), workers manage
to use the structural powers emanating from the chains’ organisational setup to their own
advantage. Capital, in return, must adapt to such labour agency by making concessions
or finding other ways to control its workforce. The main argument is that the outcome of
these struggles is not necessarily negative for workers (Pegler and Knorringa 2007;
Rainnie et al. 2011; Riisgaard and Hammer 2011; Selwyn 2007). However, as workers
act in highly different ‘local labour control regimes’ (Jonas 1996), the potential for more
standard collective mobilisation may vary considerably (Anner 2015). In many settings,
open forms of resistance may be considered useless, counterproductive or even outright
dangerous.
This must not be the end of the story on labour agency. Other authors push to consider
less-visible forms of agency which are ‘neither collective nor formally institutionalised, yet
reveal labour’s ability to act and even shape the landscape within which capital operates’
(Carswell and De Neve 2013, 63). Guthman (2016), for example, shows how acts of
minor agency of migrant strawberry farmworkers, such as ‘walking off the job’, forces
employers to modify working conditions in workers’ favour. De Neve (2014) studies the
diversity of worker preferences in the Indian garment sector for flexible versus more
stable jobs. He argues that workers’ ability to act upon these preferences is central to understanding the bifurcated structure of the garment sector. The theoretical argument that minor
agency matters seems quite straightforward, even though critics point at the ‘real limits to
what such forms of labour agency can [actually] achieve’ for workers (Lund-Thomsen
2013, 72).
Less clarity exists over how we should conceptually understand these various types of
agency (Coe and Jordhus-Lier 2011). Katz (2004, 239–57) identifies different forms of
minor agency that may underlie autonomous acts in people’s everyday lives. In order to
understand oppositional practice or its possible effects, she looks at the underlying intentionality of such acts. Most autonomous acts, Katz (2004) argues, are pragmatic actions aimed at
getting by each day, and maybe at improving upon existing conditions. Katz (2004) reserves
the term resistance for those relatively rare actions that are based upon an oppositional consciousness and upon ‘a vision of what else could be’ (253). The most influential elaboration of
such a perspective in a rural setting has been Scott’s (1985) study of the everyday hidden acts
and discourse of Malaysian peasants. Scott argues that in these forms of ‘everyday resistance’
against landlords, agrarian capitalism and market ideology, peasants find a space in which
they resist the structures and individuals they experience as exploitative or unjust. At the
core of such resistance, he argues, lies an ideological contestation and counter-narrative of
what constitutes a just society. In the case of Malaysian peasants’ everyday resistance,
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4
Robin Thiers
Scott argues that such counter-ideology is found in the notion of a moral economy, relying on
the ethics of reciprocity and redistribution. In contrast, not all students of resistance see intention and ideology as a central feature. Instead, for de Certeau (1984) practice is central in his
vivid metaphor of a pedestrian ‘walking in the city’ (91–110). Following the moves of ‘ordinary practitioners of the city’ (93) he describes how they manoeuvre their way within a carefully thought-out and methodically developed city. Key to the pedestrian’s movement
(‘everyday practice’) is the experiential (‘tactical’) feeling and knowledge in carving out
shortcuts and cutting corners in ever more innovative ways, constantly outsmarting the city
planner. The latter, despite mastery in the theoretical strategies of urban planning, is endlessly
forced to play catch-up with these tactical moves happening on the ground. In this view,
ordinary practitioners do not necessarily have the intention to undermine power, and therefore
also do not need an ideological space or counter-narrative on which to base their opposition.
Rather, as Katz (2004, 253) explains, ordinary people ‘engage in opposition without a space
of their own, that is, they encroach upon – in a temporary, often stealthy way – the space of
the dominating power in order to recuperate something’. In contrast to Scott’s resisting
peasant, who needs to create and rely on an ideological space of their own, de Certeau’s pedestrian does not need such space or alternative ideology in order to resist. Rather, de Certeau
argues that it is the very practice of ‘consuming’ the real-life infrastructure of the dominating
power (which invariably has cracks) that entails the potential of subversion.
In this contribution I explore the practice of palupad as one of the tactics small banana
producers use to manoeuvre within the daily realities of a contract farming system. Palupad
is the Visayan word for ‘outside, to fly’ (as opposed to pasulod, meaning ‘inside’). In La
Frontera the term refers to side-selling or pole-vaulting, i.e. selling contracted produce to
someone who is not the contracted buyer.3 Officially growers inscribe themselves in the
heavily regulated regime of contract farming, with its standardised contracted rules, regulations and obligations. In practice, growers make use of their superior knowledge of the
rugged terrain of everyday production and exchange to outwit the company. Produce
that is sold palupad is harvested at night, quickly thrown on the truck of a neighbouring
independent producer, or smuggled out of the plantation in connivance with company
guards. Even more astutely, growers deliberately downgrade otherwise perfectly acceptable
fruit so as to be able to sell it to outside buyers, herewith turning regulations meant to
control production against the company itself. As I will argue in the remainder of this
paper, these tactics have had significant consequential effects for the political economy
of the export banana sector in the Philippines. Whether such actions are conscious and
oppositional (as in Scott’s everyday resistance) or not (as in de Certeau’s tactics), the
essence is that they test existing economic and political power structures, and, as described
by Kerkvliet (2005) in his study of Vietnamese peasants under state-sanctioned collective
agriculture, have the potential to challenge and even alter them.
The focus on the tactical manoeuvring of small producers rather than workers leads me
to a final theoretical point. Is it useful to draw on the literature on labour agency when studying this phenomenon of palupad? The contract farmers who engage in palupad are not
workers in the strict sense of the wage relation, but rather small producers engaging in a
contractual market exchange relationship. When engaging with small producers, most
GCC analysis therefore focuses on the value they capture within the chain. The key
concern then is how they can capture more of the value created and distributed along the
chain, which is called ‘upgrading’. While focusing predominantly on the terms of
3
More broadly, it also refers to any trade in goods that ‘fell off the back of a truck’.
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The Journal of Peasant Studies
5
integration in GPNs as small business units, this literature is less concerned with dynamics
of (labour) exploitation or with how those active in the ‘hidden abode of production’ actually help shape GPNs in return (Marx 1867, 279).4 Taking a class perspective (as is done in
the literature on the agency of labour in GPNs) helps us to address these issues, but becomes
a complex matter when dealing with heterogeneous groups of ‘small producers’. Within
fragmented GPNs, much economic activity takes place in geographically concentrated networks of small- and medium-sized producers, (sub)contractors and traders. In these networks
surplus is appropriated not only within the relations of production (such as the wage relationship or the exploitation of an informal or household-based workforce), but also through the
relations of exchange, as buyers or traders extract surplus through rent, interest or the terms of
commodity exchange (Harriss-White 2010). Typical mechanisms to appropriate surplus from
small producers include forms of debt bondage, abuse of monopsony positions or through the
provision of vital inputs on credit or forward sales obligation (McMichael 2013). As a result,
rather than just being small businesses, small producers often find themselves in an ambiguous class position. While they may have partial control over the means of production, they are
nonetheless exploited by other forms of capital at different stages of the chain. Hence, within
the tradition of Marxist agrarian political economy, small farmers (particularly contract
farmers) have been conceptualised alternatively as disguised wage labour, having lost any
meaningful control over the means and process of production (Watts 1994); as petty commodity producers, who find themselves in between the class positions of capital and labour (Bernstein and Byres 2001; Harriss-White 2012); or as small capital, i.e. small enterprises driven
by a different logic of valorisation and higher potential of self- (or family-based) exploitation
than more standard corporate capitalist enterprises (Pérez Niño 2016; Starosta 2010). Such
theoretical distinctions have their importance when analysing agency, as a contract
farmer’s position in economic class relations of exploitation and accumulation is one of
the drivers of (tactical) behaviour. Do contract farmers engage in palupad as a reaction
against an exploitative contract? Or do they simply aim to gain more money as one of the
small capitalist businesses within the chain? If their class position is ambiguous, maybe
what drives them is a combination of both? Such questions are ultimately empirical ones.
As demonstrated in this case study of the banana growers of La Frontera, dynamics of
social differentiation and mobility make class positions of individuals within a ‘small-scale
farming community’ heterogeneous and dynamic. Rather than trying to classify these
farmers as in a fixed class position, we must thus try to account for their behaviour in and
through historical ambiguities. To do so, let us turn to La Frontera.
2.
The phenomenon of palupad in La Frontera’s banana farms
Research notes / / August 2016 / / La Frontera, barangay Pinto
Jojo’s house stands in the middle of his three-hectare banana farm. When we arrive at the
porch, Jojo loudly welcomes my guide Jun. Jun and Jojo had a brief business stint together
some years ago. ‘Does the Joe [that is me] want small or big hands?’ he asks, referring to
the different banana sizes on the market. Jojo hardly hides his disappointment on finding
out I’m not a buyer. We sit down in the shade next to his house for an interview. Jojo is a contract grower for Dole. Yet, as he explains, he and his brother have their own packing plant.
‘What we pack there, we sell palupad. Every week, often a majority of what we produce’.
4
With respect to contract farming, however, Walker (2009) and Clapp (1988) show how contract
farmers’ mixture of resistance and collaboration shapes and enables relations of contract farming.
6
Robin Thiers
In this section I explore how the sector developed in two barangays of the municipality of
La Frontera, situated at the core of the Davao banana plantation belt. I will first consider
how one specific company, Dole–Stanfilco, developed a historically and geographically
specific production regime in the period between 1969 and the early 1990s. I then look
at how growers and locally influential personalities started side-selling their produce,
thereby undermining La Frontera’s production regime. Eventually, together with ongoing
struggles over the implementation of the government’s land reform programme, this practice affected economic and political power structures within the sector as a whole.
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2.1.
Dole’s collective farming system in La Frontera (1969–late 1990s)
Export banana production in the Philippines started in 1968–1969, when transnational
companies (TNCs; three US-based and one Japan-based) linked up with elite families
on the Southern island of Mindanao. The TNCs provided the technical know-how and
access to overseas markets, and controlled the shipping segment. The Filipino state
and elites were instrumental in providing access to Mindanao’s vast land areas suitable
for banana cultivation, and in recruiting the necessary workforce (David et al. 1981;
Feranil 1998; Krinks 1986). The majority of production took place in large-scale corporate plantations, owned by Filipinos but contracted to the TNCs. As such, the production
regime resembled the contract farming arrangements that had emerged in Latin America
throughout the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in Ecuador and Colombia (Striffler and
Moberg 2003). However, in certain areas of the Davao del Norte province a different
pattern emerged. This was the case in barangays Likuran and Pinto, in the municipality
of La Frontera. The history of contemporary La Frontera started with a first wave of settlers from the Ilocos region on the Northern Philippine island of Luzon. When they
arrived in the area from the 1920s onwards, indigenous groups (lumads) that previously
inhabited the area moved further up into the highlands. The settlers started clearing the
land and establishing their communities and villages. Leading families in local politics
today have their origins among these first settlers. Subsequent groups of immigrants
arrived in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. They came either from Ilocos, following their
family and kin, or from the central Philippine island region of the Visayas where
workers were recruited to work in Davao’s abaca plantations. Some of these later arrivals
managed to also buy land from the earlier settlers.
In 1969, prospectors or ‘canvassers’ for Stanfilco (the Philippine subsidiary of Standard
Fruits, later to become Dole) approached the landowners in Likuran and Pinto with a proposal to lease their lands for a period of 10 years and to convert them into Cavendish banana
plantations. Some agreed, and became lessees to Golden Farms, a corporate plantation
growing for and partially owned by Stanfilco. Others, at that time growing a variety of
crops, such as abaca, rice and corn, did not see the value in leasing out their land but
agreed to become contract growers of Cavendish bananas directly with Stanfilco. Eventually almost all landowners converted to banana production, attracted by the promise of
high and weekly incomes and substantial signing bonuses, or under pressure from neighbours and the company. With the advent of widespread banana production, the physical,
economic and social landscape of Likuran and Pinto transformed radically. Part of the barangays’ land was now integrated in the corporate plantation of Golden Farms, while most of
the rest of the land consisted of contracted small and medium-sized farms. Previously the
area had been isolated, largely forested with some diversified farming, and could only be
reached by cart travelling over long distances of dirt road. Within a few years, almost
the entire territory of the barangays was planted with one of the Philippines’ most important
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The Journal of Peasant Studies
7
export crops. A paved highway and public transport services emerged connecting the town
to regional centres, including the port and city of Davao.
Initially, Stanfilco’s production system on the contracted farm lots (ranging in size from
one to over 100 hectares) relied on growers who worked the land individually and constituted a highly heterogeneous group. After a few years, however, when looking for tighter
control over the production process and better economies of scale, the system was changed
into ‘collective farming’ on contiguous blocks of around 200 hectares each. These blocks
delivered produce to a central packing plant, owned and managed by a ‘packing plant president’. Presidents were usually the largest grower in the area and originated from local
early settler elite families, playing important roles in municipal and barangay politics. Landowners were still paid on the basis of the weight of bananas produced on their land, in
biweekly billings. A range of farming costs were deducted from these billings, such as
the costs for packing, aerial spraying, fertiliser, labour, etc. Additional deductions could
be made to pay back development costs, or loans and advances taken out by growers.
Work on the land was done on the basis of a collective system, grouping individual lots
together. The company5 retained a tight hold on the content and timing of the work on
the land, such as area maintenance, plant and fruit care and harvesting, and in the
packing plant, where banana bunches were dehanded, washed, packed and controlled for
quality. From a legal point of view, workers were hired by the growers on an individual
basis. In practice, however, the company and growers’ association, which was run by the
largest growers-cum-landowners of the town, kept a strict eye on the recruitment process
and decided upon the terms of contracts. When a grower wanted to hire a worker (typically
a family member, friend or kin, or sometimes even themself), the potential worker first had
to physically present themself at the Stanfilco Human Resources office, bringing a number
of documentary requirements before approval. Finally, a ‘collective leader’, one of the
growers responsible for labour relations at each zone of 200 hectares, had to approve the
appointment and contract length (ranging between 90 and 180 days).
Class tensions were rife and multi-layered under the collective system. Larger growers,
particularly the packing plant presidents, generally maintained good relationships with the
company and fared well economically. Growers with smaller landholdings could typically
be classified more as petty commodity producers or even propertied labour. Finally, there
were the landless workers doing most of the physical work in the banana plantations.
Labour unrest and a large strike in 1986 led to the first collective bargaining agreement
between workers under the collective system and the individual growers.6 Several more episodes of labour-related unrest followed throughout the late 1980s and 1990s. At the same
time, many growers felt discontented with their arrangement with Stanfilco. The key complaint was that buying prices were too low, and deductions were unaccounted for and costly
(these complaints were already signalled in David et al. 1983). Communication with the
company over such complaints was channelled through the growers’ association, which
5
With the exception of the largest contract grower in the area (over 100 hectares), who continued to
manage operations and labour relations himself.
6
The negotiation process of these collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) is a further illustration of
the way in which the contract farming scheme blurred the employment relations between itself,
growers and workers. On paper, the CBA was a document between workers and their legal employers,
i.e. the landowners/growers of a specific collective production zone. While the company thus
remained out of the picture from a legal point of view, negotiations on behalf of the growers were
conducted by the growers’ association’s secretary. She, at the same time, was the Human Resources
officer of Stanfilco for the entire zone.
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Robin Thiers
over time achieved some steady, but limited, price increases. Such discontent could lead
growers to silently sympathise with and (in probably rather isolated cases) even openly
support workers’ strikes and demands. And yet, instances of open contestation tell only
part of the story of class relations under the collective farming system.
As argued by Jonas (1996) and Kelly (2001), cross-cutting ties of mutual dependency,
reciprocity and social cohesion often serve to lessen the antagonism inherent to any local
labour control regime. This was the case for La Frontera under the collective farming
system. Workers and small growers tended to be closely connected to larger landowners/
growers through family or kinship relationships, or relied on their assistance in times of
financial hardship. Those large landowners and their families occupied central positions
in local patronage networks and politics, taking up an important intermediary position
between the company, smaller growers and workers. They pursued influence by taking
up political office in the municipality and its barangays, and on the growers’ association
board. They maintained close links to Stanfilco as packing plant presidents, high- or
mid-level employees or well-earning consultants. The key intermediary role of the larger
landowners thus grew out of their centrality in local social and political relations as well
as out of feelings of loyalty and friendship towards the company which had brought ‘prosperity’ to their town and themselves. This dynamic limited the likeliness of open resistance
against Stanfilco’s production regime, particularly from the landowner-growers who had
much more to lose than the workers. However, throughout the 1990s growers found new
cracks in Stanfilco’s regime for production control in La Frontera. Exploiting these
cracks depended on the use of subtle, and sometimes hidden, tactics to outsmart the
company.
2.2.
The tactics of side-selling
To understand the emergence of side-selling, it is necessary to appreciate the quality-assurance system companies use(d) to classify bananas as fit for export. Cavendish bananas produced in the wider Davao region are intended for sale in overseas supermarkets. Strict
protocol means that tons of bananas are rejected on a daily basis. Beyond a technical
requirement, both large-scale corporate Filipino producers and Stanfilco’s small-scale
growers signal that the TNCs manipulate(d) quality requirements and assessments according to market demand. When demand is low companies tighten quality requirements, and
when demand is high they loosen regulations.7 The majority of ‘reject’ produce is converted
into pig feed, and other products such as banana ketchup.
Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, enterprising individuals, with good ties to
company officials, began to identify economic opportunities in the system. Paying a low
lump sum for all reject produce from a certain area, enterprising traders shipped reject
bananas to Manila, where they were sold cheaply in the poorer parts of the city. The
selling of rejects to such ‘class B’ buyers was also common practice in La Frontera by
the early 1980s. In 1982–1984 the growers’ association disbanded and regrouped under
a new name and governance structure, due to a legal dispute seeking to delineate who
had the right to sell reject produce – the association or the individual growers? Around
1986 there was even an instance where a Saudi buyer living in Davao tried to export
rejected bananas, but this remained an isolated case. Rejects initially were just bought
7
This argument was made by several respondents from different backgrounds, with regard to both historical and current practice, in the Philippines (David et al. 1983, 42) and elsewhere (Soluri 2005, 28).
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The Journal of Peasant Studies
9
straight off the belt in the packing plant, with company officials taking no issue. Rather,
these extra income opportunities probably played a part in soothing relations between
growers and the company. In the 1990s, however, the market for rejects fundamentally
changed. Buyers of reject bananas and some of the local grower elites became more
savvy regarding international market developments, sometimes even through business
trips sponsored by the company itself. As they developed contacts with overseas buyers,
particularly in China and Korea, Class B bananas could now be exported. In fact, during
the high season Chinese buyers were willing to pay significantly higher prices for Class
B bananas than the price Stanfilco had contracted for its Class A product. The prospect
of higher prices created an incentive for growers to transgress contracts and side-sell
their produce. Bananas would be harvested secretly very early in the morning and
packed in improvised backyard packing plants. Growers also made clever use of the
very quality standards about which they had previously complained. For example, Stanfilco
required banana plants to have four healthy (‘functional’) leaves at the time of harvest. By
cutting leaves the day or night before a bunch was to be harvested, growers intentionally
downgraded their produce to the more lucrative Class B.8 Contrary to common understanding that quality standards strengthen the power position of a commodity chain’s lead firm
(Ponte and Gibbon 2005), in this instance growers made tactical use of standards to advance
their own interests. The selling of Class B, or ‘Chinapack’ as it was locally known, now
became a point of contention between La Frontera and the growers. Legal charges were
made, guards controlled the area to prevent side-selling and growers who had built their
own ‘Chinapack’ packing plants were instructed to cease their activities.
Nonetheless, side-selling persisted and became ever more widespread throughout the
1990s and 2000s. Side-selling was further proliferated by national and international
dynamics beyond the more localised drivers in La Frontera itself. One influence was the
struggle over the implementation of the Philippine government’s Comprehensive Agrarian
Reform Program (1988) which prescribed the redistribution of large landholdings to
workers and tenants. Land redistribution commenced in Davao’s banana plantations in
the mid-1990s, and gained momentum after 1998 when an initial 10-year deferment
period expired. Companies and large landowners sought to evade the programme by devising new ways of maintaining control over production without land ownership, through
lease and through joint venture or contract farming arrangements (Borras and Franco
2005). However, in a number of cases, land claimants also successfully made use of rifts
between the elites to advance their own case. Pressure was also placed on company counterparts by making use of the trading alternatives that had slowly started to emerge among
Stanfilco growers in the early 1990s and sell produce to these other interested parties
(Borras 1998, 44–48; several interviews). As such, the dynamics of land redistribution
and side-selling trading networks strengthened each other. Another significant development
was the ongoing growth of the Chinese (and Middle East) markets and the Philippines’
ideal geographical position in order to service these markets. The fact that in China the traditional (mostly US-based) multinational banana trading companies lacked the historical
and institutional linkages to importers like they had in Japan (David et al. 1981) opened
opportunities for new market players. These opportunities were further enhanced by the
introduction of refrigerated container shipping in the banana industry, which allowed
smaller retail-oriented traders to circumvent banana-TNC control (Bright 2012).
8
Another tactic is to purposely hit the ground with a banana bunch, so that the sand sticking to it would
hint at a cracked banana stem (so-called ‘tip-off’).
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Robin Thiers
And yet, none of these explanations alone suffices to account for why and how at a
certain point in time Stanfilco’s production regime came under increased pressure from
the phenomenon of palupad. How did actors higher up the chain manage to link up with
growers in La Frontera? Why did only some growers take the risk of transgressing contracts? And why did the company not manage to stop this clear threat to its production
regime? The stories of Martin, Bobot, Tatay and Tong shed some light on the way the
phenomenon of palupad is embedded within the (dis)loyalties of dynamic kinship and
patronage networks that cut across La Frontera’s historically specific class antagonisms
and relationships.
Martin was one of the first buyers for ‘Chinapack’ in La Frontera. His father was the
largest landowner and contract grower for Stanfilco, owning more than 100 hectares of
land in barangay Likuran. After running the plantation for several years in the 1970s,
Martin fell into disgrace with his family, married the daughter of his father’s long-time
rival, the mayor of La Frontera, and became involved in managing the banana farm of
his in-laws. When the opportunity for ‘Chinapack’ arose via some business contacts,
Martin was quick to engage in this new, lucrative business. This became an avenue for
revenge towards his father and siblings who had ostracised him. Martin convinced
growers to stop selling to Dole and switch to his own ‘Chinapack’ brand. He helped
workers from his father’s farm to organise and apply for the government’s land redistribution programme. When the workers obtained their land titles (after a tense land occupation
in 2001), they became loyal suppliers to Martin’s trading business. Martin’s involvement in
the banana business ended abruptly when he was murdered in 2004. Martin’s case remains
unsolved.
Bobot is a banana grower who started selling palupad in the early 1990s. Born in Ilocos,
he moved to La Frontera in the early 1960s to work at an abaca plantation. After a few years
he had saved enough money to rent four hectares of land on which he engaged in swidden
agriculture. With the advent of the banana industry, he converted his land and became a
contract grower. However, Bobot felt exploited by the company: ‘I was both grower and
worker. As I worked for the company, I received 150 pesos in salary. But as a grower, I
was charged 300 pesos for the same labour costs’. Considering this a gross injustice, he
was compelled to be a leader in one of the worker strikes in the 1990s. Already having negative feelings towards the company, Bobot was one of the first to be convinced by Martin to
stop selling to Dole and switch to ‘Chinapack’. Bobot remains grateful for the opportunity
afforded to him by Martin: ‘When the company was managing the farm, we could not save
any money. That changed when Chinapack came. Then we were able to buy a little lot [of
land]’ (interview February 2016). Until Martin’s death in 2004, Bobot loyally sold his
bananas to him: ‘We were close. He is ninong [i.e. sponsor, godfather] of my eldest son’.
Tatay is a latecomer to the banana trade but has emerged as a big player. Born in one of
La Frontera’s early settler elite families, her father was a packing plant president who regularly took on consultancy jobs for Stanfilco. On lands in a neighbouring province, the
family started a pallet9 business servicing the banana industry. Side-selling, however,
was out of the question for Tatay’s family: ‘Pole-vaulting at this point was really becoming
a big problem for the sector, so I refrained from doing it. If I did, it would go totally against
my father’s respected reputation’ (interview February 2016). Nonetheless, after Tatay’s
9
Banana boxes are transported on pallets. These pallets may be produced by the local timber industry.
Several other industries are linked to the banana industry in similar ways. Examples are trucking services or bamboo production, used for fencing and propping up of the banana plants.
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11
father passed away, her perspective changed. Changes at the highest level of Dole–Stanfilco’s management structure lessened her feelings of loyalty, and in the meantime she had
seen many of her friends starting profitable businesses in the banana trade. Around 2010
Tatay ventured into the trade herself, ‘pole-vaulting’ produce from her brother’s farm, at
that time still a Dole grower. In the years since, Tatay has quickly grown into one of the
largest and most influential banana traders.
Tong is a former plantation worker, who turned agrarian reform beneficiary and later
became a small-scale consolidator. Originally from Bohol, from the 1980s Tong worked
at the large Stanfilco-contracted plantation of Martin’s family. In 1998, he was singled
out by Martin for the high-stakes role of leading a group of land claimants under the
government programme. With the active support of Martin and a non-governmental
organisation, in 2002 the group managed to obtain 18 hectares for 39 beneficiaries
(i.e. 0.46 hectares per person) and went on to form a cooperative. Tong was cooperative
chairman for several years. Eventually, however, he and 11 others split from the cooperative after a conflict over the sales of the collective produce. Relations between Tong
and Martin were also strained when Tong campaigned for a candidate who was not
Martin’s preference during municipal elections. Having gained experience in the
banana business, Tong now engages in ‘dicing’ (i.e. negotiating sales for another
buyer in return for a fee). In return for fertiliser and financial advances, small growers
sell their produce through Tong.
In these (and other) stories, three themes consistently emerge. First, growers’ class positions are ambiguous, diverse and dynamic. Clearly, not all growers engaged in palupad
and the spot market (i.e. the marketing system in which growers and traders negotiate transactions on a case-by-case basis) from the same socio-economic positions. Larger growers
and their family members, like Martin and Tatay, enjoyed the benefits of having both financial and social capital at their disposal. They quickly grew rising merchant capital. Smaller
growers or workers started from a much less privileged position. The cases of Bobot and
Tong indicate that upward class mobility was made possible largely through the spot
market (and land reform). Yet, far from all growers have their own packing plant now,
and many workers never obtain a farm lot.
Second, the ambiguous class position of growers is reflected in the practice and intentions of palupad. Intentions are usually multiple for each side-seller, while the relative
importance of motivations differs from grower to grower. For small growers, and in the discourse of those convincing them to do so, breaking the contract is often legitimated by the
idea that growers were not receiving a fair price for their produce, and were under pressure
to cover family expenses, labour and farming costs. This hints at normative ideas about
what constitutes a ‘just economy’. On the other hand, virtually all those interviewed
refer to the market principle of selling for the best price. Moreover, many engage in the
alternative banana trade with clear accumulation objectives. Thinking and acting as small
business owners, growers invest in a packing plant, hire (often informal) workers and sometimes expand their farms. This is certainly the case for those entrepreneurial locally based
businessmen who have managed to expand rapidly over the past decade(s) by consolidating
and trading bananas, and quite often also by buying up new banana lands.
Third, palupad and the spot market are strongly embedded within social relations of
reciprocity and loyalty. Considerations over (un)fulfilled promises, kinship ties, and
moral or financial debts continue to underlie people’s behaviour. Just as Stanfilco’s production regime was based on reciprocal ties between company, elites, growers and
workers, the spot market also works with very similar logic. ‘Pole-vaulting’ growers,
owners of small packing plants and the ‘Chinapack’ buyers cut through the company’s
12
Robin Thiers
loyalty networks whilst creating new reciprocal ties that bridge economic, social and political realms.
3.
Consequential effects – contested transformations in the chain
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Side-selling started as a seasonal phenomenon. Over time it became widespread and led to
new networks of traders, small packing houses and independent growers. In this section I
explore how these developments contributed directly to the transformation of La Frontera’s
production system. I then move beyond the town of La Frontera to discuss governance
issues in the Philippine banana sector as a whole. At both levels, the phenomenon of
side-selling has had wide-ranging effects on the contemporary struggle for control over
the sector.
3.1.
Changes in La Frontera’s production system (late 1990s–today)
In 1999 Stanfilco abolished the collective system. A direct trigger for the reform was a large
strike of the collective workers, when operations in a number of packing plants were
stopped for several days. In the new system the landowners/growers would again
become responsible for farm maintenance and associated labour control. The breakdown
of the collective system signalled the end of the labour union in La Frontera. It also heralded
the start of a new type of standard contract for Stanfilco growers in La Frontera. Under the
new ex-patio system, growers10 deliver their produce to Stanfilco packing plants, whereby
at the point of entrance the produce becomes the property of Stanfilco. This arrangement
still allows the company room to manipulate billings and price to its own advantage.
The company fully controls the quality inspection within the packing plant and thus the
final price received by growers,11 while deductions are still being made to repay farm
inputs and cash advances. The cost of aerial spraying services tends to constitute a large
deduction, with spraying schemes fully beyond the control of growers.
Over time, Stanfilco had increasingly lost control over its growers because of the rapid
spread of side-selling. What had started as the harmless selling of unwanted ‘rejects’ in the
1980s had grown into a phenomenon (seasonal at first, year round over time) challenging
Stanfilco’s monopsony position in La Frontera. Throughout the 1990s the numbers and
volumes bought by side-selling traders grew. Not only did they buy ever-larger quantities,
but the number of traders also grew which further spurred competition. In the late 2000s
some of the big banana companies also joined the side-selling dance, and a so-called
‘spot market’ came into being.12 Whereas this market is highly volatile and is characterised
10
Initially some of the growers formed cooperatives and sold their produce on a collective basis to
Stanfilco. However, most of these initiatives did not last long. The cooperatives that currently exist
in the area emanate from groups of agrarian reform beneficiaries (who were encouraged by law to
form cooperatives) rather than groups of long-time Stanfilco growers.
11
Under the ex-patio contract, ownership of the produce transfers to the company at the point of entry
into the company’s packing plant, where it is classified, packed and eventually paid for according to
quality. Producers have little to no transparency or control over the way quality selection is done. In
this sense, it differs from the also common freight on board (FOB) contract. Here, the packing plant is
usually managed by a trader, grower, or growers’ cooperative, allowing them more control over
quality selection and thus the final price. Ownership of the produce then transfers at the end of the
packing process.
12
Several respondents mentioned a Saudi trading firm, Abbar and Zaini (ANZ), as the first large-scale
investor to engage in spot buying. After ANZ split from their Italian partners of Unifrutti, they
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The Journal of Peasant Studies
13
by a yearly low season in the later months of the year, competition between traders can also
push prices multiple times above Stanfilco’s contract prices (see Figures 1 and 2). One clear
result is the strong temptation for growers to side-sell when prices are high. Yet the changes
it triggered in La Frontera’s banana sector reach even further. As the spot market grew,
many growers stopped or refused to renew their contracts with Stanfilco and have
become so-called ‘independent growers’. Some sell to one specific buyer on a formal or
informal contract basis, often with weekly fluctuating prices. Some canvas the market
from week to week and sell to whoever is paying the best price. Many combine these strategies. As these spot buyers rely on their own sourcing network of consolidators and small
packing plant owners, the spot market has provided new accumulation opportunities for
entrepreneurial individuals, enabling some to catalyse upward social and economic mobility (see Figure 3). Also on the spot market, buyers and growers typically create new reciprocal relations of loyalty, resembling a sort of moral economy. Buyers provide cheaper
inputs, advance loans to growers in times of need, or keep buying bananas even when
demand is low. In return, growers are expected to deliver (a part of) their produce, even
when other buyers may offer high prices. Despite an increasingly attractive spot market,
the majority of growers in La Frontera have remained under contract with Dole.
However, these growers now receive higher prices because Dole has recognised the
dynamics of competition. Moreover, many growers for Dole regularly (and some systematically) engage in side-selling, which tends to be tolerated to a certain extent by local
company officials. Finally, for several groups of plantation workers the increasing competition between banana buyers has facilitated the acquisition of land through the agrarian
reform programme, as they were able to find new allies in their struggle against previous
landlords or institutional buyers.
These changes to the local political economy of banana production have not been
immediate, or uncontested. Rather, these changes have come about through on-going
struggles between growers and the company, as well as within the community of La Frontera. Sometimes these conflicts and grudges have turned violent. In the early months of
2004, a leader of a group of Stanfilco growers was murdered, and then ‘Chinapack’
buyer Martin was also killed. Stories of killings, threats and other shows of force characterise the continued importance of (the capacity for) violence in the banana sector.13 Particularly (but not only) high-profile individuals respond by carrying a weapon, having
bodyguards or installing security infrastructure, such as barbed or electrical fences and
cameras. In the vast majority of situations, however, tensions are dealt with or mediated
using less (explicitly) violent methods. Business partners may disengage from each
other, grower cooperatives dissolve, new business partnerships are created and betrayed.
Grudges and loyalties between partners, family members and kin evolve over time. It is
in this environment that we also have to understand largely unsuccessful company
efforts to counter side-selling. Company staff (guards, quality inspectors and even higher
ranking staff) may prefer to turn a blind eye to side-selling and reap a small reward
launched an aggressive attack on the Philippine market in 2008 by offering prices up to USD 2 above
contract prices. The stint failed because of quality concerns (interviews February 2016, March 2017;
see also Quitoriano 2008).
13
For a more historical account of the role of top-down coercive violence in the banana sector, see
segments of de la Rosa (2005). In interviews, several cases of killings throughout the province
over the last 15 years were mentioned. Narratives of such (usually unsolved) killings often link
them to banana-related conflict. The direction of violence may be both downward and upward
oriented, as well as among peers.
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Robin Thiers
Figure 1.
Fluctuations on the ‘spot market’ in La Frontera.
themselves, rather than risk antagonising a disgruntled (and perhaps influential) grower.
Taking legal action by filing cases has proven largely ineffective.14 Certain growers and
buyers can also mobilise the support of (local) politicians, police or even the military
against a company. Such difficulties have led to a degree of tolerance towards side-selling.
This does not mean the company has fully given up on this struggle. Guards are still
instructed to register cases of side-selling, thereby maintaining the threat of cessation of
vital inputs such as aerial spraying services. Growers signalled that the company is now
proposing new types of growership and lease contracts, in which the company regains
closer control over activities in the field. Moreover, such contracts contain provisions
that allow the company to take over the management of the land in case of side-selling.
The fact that many growers were facing economic stress at the time of research because
of the rapidly spreading fungal ‘Panama disease’ is raising the pressure to sign. At a
more macro level, the major banana companies have also started to adapt their sourcing
strategy to changing realities on the ground. Companies are investing in large-scale corporate plantations in new areas where no spot market currently exists. Some companies also
Most such cases enter the legal system as criminal ‘theft’ cases rather than civil ‘breach of contract’
cases which take longer in judicial procedure. Cases rarely reach an actual verdict in court but are
resolved through ‘amicable settlement’ at the Municipal Trial Court. The settlement usually entails
a bail-out of the offender after a night in jail, and restitution for the offender (see Franco 2008 for
a critical note on the extensive use of ‘amicable settlement’ in the rural Philippines). However, in
those exceptional cases that came to a verdict, the ‘offender’ was usually found not guilty, as at
the time of interception (e.g. night-time harvest), the bananas are technically not yet company property
(key informant interview, February 2017). A legislative proposal to counter pole-vaulting (i.e. House
Bill 4582) is currently under discussion at the Philippine National Congress.
14
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The Journal of Peasant Studies
15
Figure 2. Labels of different brands of Cavendish banana being packed at Coop X (Likuran, La
Frontera). Photo credit: author.
have started to source directly from the spot market themselves, or offer contracts with
(informally) fluctuating prices adapted to those on the spot market.
3.2. Packing plant struggles – contested governance in a transforming chain
As the export banana sector changed, so too have struggles over who is to control it and
how. As indicated, the practice of side-selling and the emergence of the spot market led
to a mushrooming of packing plants oriented towards the spot market.15 Some of these
packing plants are very small and consist of not much more than a washing basin at the
side of the road or the back of someone’s house. Others are rather large and resemble
the semi-industrial structures of packing plants at the large-scale corporate plantations.
Many packing plants do not fulfil all phytosanitary standards, nor do they register with
local and regional authorities for tax and export purposes. The phenomenon of the small
15
As of February 2016, 634 Cavendish banana packing plants were registered as required with the
Bureau of Plant Industry – Plant Quarantine Service of the Philippine Department of Agriculture
(BPI-PQS). Of the 16 based in barangays Likuran and Pinto (La Frontera), 11 pack for spot
market buyers. These official numbers do not include unregistered packing plants.
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Robin Thiers
Figure 3. Former Dole-Stanfilco grower posing in front of his small packing plant and house. Photo
credit: author.
packing plant started initially with the selling of rejected bananas, and continued with the
spread of side-selling. The company discouraged its growers from setting up their own
packing plants, realising that packing plants are integral infrastructure in the palupad
chain. However, given the local political and economic influence of key players involved
in this trade, the company’s scope to counter the establishment of packing plants has
been limited. Over time, these small packing plants are emerging as new sites of struggle
over the governance of the banana commodity chain.
First, operations in the small packing plants created new quality-control issues. The low
quality expectations for the early ‘Chinapack’ ensured that growers initially did not need to
be overly concerned about packing conditions. Today, however, different brands each have
their specific quality standards, and overall quality demands of buyers in Korean, Chinese
and Middle East markets have increased. As a result, no banana is packed within these small
packing plants without the physical presence, and sometimes active intervention, of quality
inspectors (QIs) of the brand(s) being packed. Traders thus have a number of employees as
QIs and in produce transport. As they provide people with jobs and livelihoods, traders also
begin to gain socio-political clout. Quality decisions by the QIs may vary from person to
person, but can also depend on weekly (or daily) variations in the instructions from the
buyer. This opens space for discussions or discontent among growers about their
bananas being rejected or sold as low quality for a lower price. At a more macro level, established traders complain about reputational damage to the Philippine banana sector because
of the low-quality bananas packed and sold in these small packing plants and entering the
international stage.
Second, both old and new actors have started to advance their own interests when it
comes to the governance and regulation of the industry. For most of the sector’s history,
contacts between the sector and the government have been channelled through the Philippine Banana Growers and Exporters Association (PBGEA), a highly influential sector
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17
organisation that has united the big players in the banana sector since the 1970s (Borras and
Franco 2005; David et al. 1983; Feranil 1998). However, the growth of the spot market
resulted in a large group of traders who are neither part of, nor controlled by, these
PBGEA companies. Taken together, spot market growers now move similar volumes of
produce to their larger PBGEA counterparts (see Table 1). Given these different dynamics,
interests within the sector may collide. For example, there may be disparate views regarding
the use and regulation of small packing plants. Small- and medium-scale traders are positioned to mobilise their political influence at the local level whenever necessary, but at the
broader sectoral level also, they have gained political clout. In 2008 the Department of
Agriculture (responsible for the issuance of phytosanitary certificates for export through
its Davao Plant Quarantine Office – BPI-PQS) encouraged emerging traders to form
their own representative association. The Mindanao Banana Farmers and Exporters Association (MBFEA) was subsequently founded and has grown to be active and influential in
their dealings with a variety of government institutions and in the Davao business
community.
Third, interest groups are becoming increasingly reliant on Philippine state institutions
to take up a role in the sector’s daily governance. While elites in the banana sector have
always ensured good relations with holders of political office to safeguard their business
interests, state regulation has historically been largely absent from day-to-day chain,
farm and quality management in the Philippine banana sector. However, as the spot
market has grown, so too has the perceived need for the government to take a more
active role in regulation. Since the early 2010s, with the rapid spread of Panama disease
and the blockage by China of several Philippine banana imports for a mixture of political
and quality reasons, both PBGEA and MBFEA have increasingly called upon national and
regional government institutions to assist the sector with phytosanitary matters. Government institutions have tended to be responsive to such calls. Most significantly, the BPIPQS developed new regulations (Memorandum Orders 40 and 41 of 2012) for the accreditation of exporters, traders, growers and packing facilities which, in theory, imply unprecedented government supervision of daily banana management. The main targets of such
government intervention are the small packing plants. However, the BPI-PQS’ lack of policing power makes implementation at the field level almost impossible. Efforts to mobilise
local governments to assist in the implementation of regulations have, thus far, had little
success. While in some provinces and municipalities specific legislative efforts are underway, sceptics are doubtful about the willingness of municipal and barangay officials to
crack down on the small packing plants owned, managed or used by their constituents.
Less well-connected traders and growers tend to be particularly sceptical about such
Table 1. Export of fresh Cavendish banana from the port of Davao in December 2014.
Type of exporters
Philippine Banana
Growers and Exporters
Association (PBGEA)
Non-PBGEA
No. of trading
companies
Net volume
(in metric
tons)
Net
volume (in
%)
No. of shipments
(phytosanitary
certificates)
14
62,909
46
650
77
74,108
54
1488
Source: Author’s own elaboration from data obtained at the Davao Office of the Bureau of Plant Industry Plant
Quarantine Services – BPI-PQS.
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Robin Thiers
initiatives, as they tend to perceive them as new vehicles for the pursuit of the private interests of well-connected individuals.
In sum, it is clear that (influence on) government regulation and policing of daily activities is becoming increasingly important for actors in the sector. Again we see that what
started as small producers’ tactics to make use of the cracks in Dole-Stanfilco’s production
system has resulted in significant changes in the sector as a whole. The establishment of
new trade routes (i.e. through informal packing plants with low quality control) has set
the scene for new types of sectoral struggle. Issues of regulation and control in and over
these packing plants has become increasingly important for those seeking to control the
sector. In the past a limited number of private companies managed these issues largely
autonomously; now there are a myriad of actors who increasingly feel the need to appeal
to state authority to govern the chain. The rising influence of new players (such as the
MBFEA) and government institutions (such as the BPI-PQS) can be understood in this
light.
4.
Conclusions – whither the politics of small producer tactics?
In this contribution I have demonstrated the importance of small producers’ tactics in the
making, shaping and transforming of a global commodity chain. In particular I have
explored the phenomenon of side-selling by contract farmers. By selling (part of) their
produce to other, non-contracted buyers, the latter have directly contributed to the emergence of alternative trade routes that circumvent and undermine the control of the traditional lead firms in the commodity chain. The particular ways in which they have done
so have carved out the scene for new contemporary struggles for control whereby new
private and public actors have become involved in the governance of the Philippine
export banana sector. Contemporary governance struggles involve new spaces and
issues, such as small packing plants and quality concerns, as they have emerged out of
the historical trajectory of the sector’s transformation.
These findings lead to some more theoretical discussions about whether and how small
producers can be drivers of change in a globalised economy. Building upon the literature of
the agency of labour in GPNs, this paper has argued that small producers can contribute to
the shaping, making and transforming of GPNs through forms of tactical agency. The ways
that the phenomenon of side-selling has impacted the structure and governance of the Philippine export banana sector confirm the validity of this analytical perspective. However,
while the alternative chains of the spot market may offer better terms of integration into
the Asian banana sector than was the case under the old Stanfilco production regime,
this does not make them univocally progressive. Even if prices have improved thanks to
competition on the spot market, growers bear large production and marketing risks
within the chain. This is evident during times of market busts or through the current
spread of Panama disease. Indeed, small producers rely on a non-unionised workforce
without formal social security protection. Even with a change in actors, relations within
the chain (of both production and exchange) thus remain characterised by unbalanced
surplus appropriation. This finding brings us full circle to de Certeau and Scott’s discussions of everyday subversive practice. To the extent that side-selling is legitimated
through ideas on social justice (i.e. the feeling of being exploited by the company) and livelihoods needs, it may constitute a form of Scott’s everyday resistance. However, decisions
to side-sell, to engage in trading or to build a packing plant usually seem to be driven also (if
not mostly) by motivations of quick profit and/or durable capital investment, acting from a
position of (small) capital, rather than acting against forms of exploitation within the chain.
The Journal of Peasant Studies
19
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Rather than situating practice explicitly outside of the existing production system, sideselling remains deeply rooted within socially embedded, yet deeply capitalist, dynamics.
Growers and traders appropriate and manipulate the spaces (e.g. the packing plants), the
norms (e.g. quality standards, loyalty) and the connections of the existing production networks, to transform and undermine them from within. As such, the tactics of small producers studied here have the potential to contribute to change in a global commodity chain.
The organisational structures and the distribution of surplus have changed. A certain
power structure has been largely undermined. However, beneath and around the banana
trees, strong dynamics of capital accumulation and labour exploitation persist. The diversity
and ambiguity observed in this group of side-selling contract farmers thus appear to be
translated into their tactics, which simultaneously bear both potential for and limits to progressive change.
Acknowledgements
I owe my gratitude to my two invaluable field guides and the many respondents who were willing to
share their time, stories and insights with me. I thank Rachel Earl for copy-editing and Jeroen Adam,
Jun Borras, Maarten Hendriks, Rosanne Rutten, Steven Schoofs, Dorien Vanden Boer, Eric Vanhaute,
Bram Verelst and three anonymous peer reviewers for their highly valuable comments on earlier
drafts. Responsibility for the analysis and possible errors remains solely mine.
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.
Funding
This work was supported by the Flemish Research Foundation (FWO) through a PhD fellowship and
travel grant.
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Robin Thiers is an FWO doctoral student at the Department of Conflict and Development Studies at
UGent (Belgium). His doctoral research focuses on questions of agency within the political economy
of the Philippine banana sector. He holds an MSc in globalisation and development studies from
SOAS (UK). Email: robin.thiers@ugent.be
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